To the moon? It starts with Manu Ginobili
“From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”
-Tom Hanks, Apollo 13
It seems surreal, but was it only a week ago that we were discussing curses and the Phoenix Suns history of glorious failures against the San Antonio Spurs? After twin collapses in Game 2 and Game 3, any shred of doubts that once existed in the Suns minds were improbably wiped away by Goran Dragic.
But even as most of us have accepted the logical conclusion of this series as an inevitability, Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry strives to keep his team grounded in reality.
“There was a situation where there wasn’t a man who ever walked on the moon either,” said Gentry.
Down 0-3, Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs face the basketball equivalent of reaching the moon with nothing but a few bottle rockets to work with. Given the way the series has gone, Game 4 and any other elimination game the Spurs face will not be about adjustments, but rather, pride–and Manu Ginobili igniting a fire under their collective asses.
If these Western Conference Semi-Finals are about to embark upon a lunar adventure then, to borrow loosely from Neil Armstrong, it’s going to take one small step for the San Antonio Spurs (winning Game 4) and one giant leap for Manu Ginobili.
It might seem too simplistic an analysis, given that the Spurs pick-and-roll defense is springing leaks faster than they can plug them, depth is non-existent and Tim Duncan has declined defensively just enough that teams can attack him with smaller lineups. But this series is all on Manu Ginobili.
Understand, the San Antonio Spurs will not lose this series because of Manu Ginobili; it’s hard to find fault or failure in 22 points and seven assists a night. But it’s not like these flaws are just emerging, they were simply buried beneath the brilliant 3-month stretch of play from Ginobili.
These Spurs are, and always were, an extremely flawed team whose presence among the elite is entirely contingent upon Manu Ginobili’s sheer will and ability to perform as a top-five impact player. Or,Â Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant without the other worldly athleticism.
But as well as he has played, it has not been enough.
It’s hard to connect broken noses with broken shooting percentages–since out of all the things that must be lined up correctly for a fundamental jump shot, the nose is rarely mentioned–but the numbers don’t lie, as our own Andrew McNeil point out.
Entering Game 3, Ginobili was shooting to the tune of 27-77 from the field, a slump-worthy 35%, since breaking his nose in the Spurs’ first round series against the Dallas Mavericks.
Give some credit to the Phoenix Suns defense, who have found ways to prevent Ginobili and Tony Parker from getting the at-the-rim-layups they are accustomed to. Even as Manu Ginobili lit up the third quarter of Game 3, his 27 points were as empty as 27 points can possibly be–owed more to a jump shot catching fire than Ginobili having his way with the defense.
Part of the problem is the pick-and-roll coverage the Phoenix Suns have employed, picking up from where the Dallas Mavericks left off. Alvin Gentry is situating a defender on each side of the screen before it set, showing absolutely no regard for the screener and discouraging any bit of dribble penetration.
The simple solution would theoretically be to have the big man slip the screen and head straight for the front of the rim, but the Spurs face two problems executing this tactic. First, because Phoenix, like Dallas, has elected to put length on Ginobili, this is not the simplest pass to make. Manu is averaging nearly four turnovers a game.
Second, Tim Duncan’s lost step makes it hard for him to elude the help defender waiting for him. The counter to this would normally be to pass the ball to the spot vacated by the help defender, normally the corner three-pointer. But because George Hill has struggled and Richard Jefferson does not bother to even spot up there, it’s no longer an option.
Remember that Superman cape Jefferson was holding for Manu Ginobili during the regular season? He’s now pulling him down by it like a weighted sack of Kryptonite.
Earlier in the season I wrote of the transformative effects a healthy Manu Ginobili has on the San Antonio Spurs defense.
If you have to account for a player at all times, every pass, every spin move, even every outlet pass is slowed a fraction of a second while an offensive player checks for a lurking Ginobili (and with the way he has played the past few weeks, you’re really going to want to check for a lurking Ginobili).
That little extra bit of hesitation is often the difference between an uncontested shot and a turnover in the NBA. The renewed aggressiveness on the boards by Manu also leads to quicker transition opportunities. Both lead to easy baskets and a running game that extends beyond the one-man fast break that has been Tony Parker.
The block on Kevin Garnett. The block on Kevin Durant. Stealing an inbounds pass from the Boston Celtics a season ago. Most of Manu Ginobili’s game-changing defensive plays are risks that work only because he is the lone Spur who operates outside of its system.
No longer true. After last game Richard Jefferson spoke of blowing defensive assignments, opening up three-point opportunities for the scorching hot Jason Richardson. Ginobili does not gamble defensively so much as he takes calculate risks. Without the proper rotations behind him, Ginobili is more apt to stay at home on Richardson.
While Ginobili is a good defender under such circumstances, and capable of running the pick-and-roll as a facilitator, it is hardly the role that makes him special. Which is what Gregg Popovich needs him to be.
For every game the San Antonio Spurs escape elimination, they will need Manu Ginobili to be the clearcut best player on the court.
Because if the Spurs are to make history, if they are to make it to the moon, it will be because their star shines brightest.